Tracking training


What is tracking?
Tracking has always been described as a “royal discipline” and it does boast a great charm, to which I’ve succumbed.
The tracking routine its self is often not so poetic, especially when one has to walk in the mud, rain or other slush, usually being still tired in the early morning hours. But on the other hand everything is instantly forgotten when my dog enjoys working in such conditions and cheerfully shows what he can do with his nose. That’s the biggest reward and it makes up for all the other pitfalls involved with tracking.

Even though it doesn’t seem to be the case at first glance, tracking also known as scent work, is actually a very difficult discipline to master. The scent training procedure is regarded as the most difficult part of the dog’s training. Skillful training and the dogs scenting ability are the deciding factors between success and failure for dogs competing at tracking tests and competition level.

It may seem strange that something as instinctive and natural for dogs as using their own sensitive nose can be so difficult to train them to use. But most of the time the problem is not with the dog. The actual problem usually lies with the poorly chosen type of training and improper motivation or the use of incorrect tools and the dog handler’s lack of knowledge.

Dog the tracker:
In general, any dog or any breed of dog can learn how to track. Certainly some dogs have a superior disposition for this activity, but every dog can learn how to follow a short and simple track. Therefore after a certain amount of training and proper guidance, every dog should have no problem with following a trail of 500 steps for at least one hour.
With the longer and more complicated trails that are older (usually more than three hours old), it will depend on the talent of the specific dog, the method of training and the dog handler’s experience.

It is best to start to develop the interest in scent work with puppies at around two months of age. This can be done by using a simple game, like hiding their favorite toy in the tall grass, hiding their treats or hiding yourself. Perhaps encourage the puppy to search for hidden objects in a room or similar place and encourage hide and seek games. Also you need to devote a lot of time to the preparation of seemingly ordinary things, for instance you can encourage a really small puppy to put his head into wet cold and dense grass to search it with his nose or encourage the puppy to lie down in the wet cold grass and stay there. Frankly because of the Ridgebacks bare belly it’s not so easy to get them to lie down in cold wet grass.  Nevertheless this sort of encouragement and interaction will make a huge difference along the rocky road of further tracking ability development and education. The importance for a dog to master this type of basic training cannot be understated because when the time comes to perform at tracking tests and competitions he will lose precious qualifying points during the test, if he does not want to smell in the wet grass with his nose down or he won’t lie down in it and identify the specific object.

 However, to get the foundations for more advanced scent work, it is of upmost importance that you initially build a friendly relationship between the dog as the tracker and yourself as the dog handler. This relationship requirement applies more so to scent work and at a much greater degree than any other work with your dog. Any physical pressure along the trail will not accomplish anything, quite to the contrary. During tracking, the dog and his handler must create a truly coordinated team.
The famous German cynologist “Stephanitz” once wrote that the work with a tracking dog requires the closest relationship between man and his dog. Much depends on their mutual good relationship. Without it the perfect cooperation between the two in this field is impossible. Only the dog which implicitly trusts his handler can overcome the problems which are encountered during tracking work.

Tracking is not solely a physiological problem of equal importance is the supremacy of the scent organ. Basically tracking depends on the combination of the intelligence of a particular dog, his ability to learn, his ability to keep attention and concentration, the condition of his nervous system and essentially the mutual support and trust between the dog and his handler.

The scent skills, which the dog will acquire during training, are not permanent. If we decide to devote time to the scent work on a higher level, it will be necessary to deepen these skills by constant training; otherwise this ability will be quickly lost. With scent work it is not enough that a specific dog has successfully passed a special tracking test, this ability must be constantly maintained. In other words it should be developed even more.

Tracking and the dog handler:
As I have already mentioned, since the training of dogs in scent work is one of the most demanding tasks in the entire training procedure, the dog handler must approach the training accordingly. In no instance can the dog handler prepare a dog for scenting work without having at least the basic knowledge of what constitutes the scent that the dog must follow. How the scent stays on the trail, how the scent is affected by the climactic conditions. Climactic conditions being issues like how is the scent affected by the temperature of air, temperature of the soil,  air humidity and pressure, wind, rain, sun, frost and other similar factors. Knowledge is also required regarding varied types of surfaces to place the tracks, such as grass, ploughed soil, winter wheat, sand, asphalt, stubble, woods, and clay. One needs to know the properties of these surfaces and which retain the scents.
Simply said, if the dog handler wants to achieve decent results in the tracking field which are enduring and did not happen purely by chance, the dog handler must be well accustomed with the theory of tracking training and at the very least knowledgeable in these points. The proverb that says “Teacher who makes more mistakes than his student cannot be successful!”  also applies to achieving success in the tracking discipline.

I definitely believe it is an absolute must for the a beginner starting out in tracking training to enlist the help of an experienced trainer who is able to guide them through the basic problems of the scent work. Thus you will avoid the errors which could be difficult (and in some situations impossible) to eliminate later.

Tracking is a wonderful discipline, but it is also lots of hard work and full of sacrifices. To ensure that your scenting dog is ready for anything and that he/she is able and willing to work in any conditions, the dog must be trained in varied circumstances. The dog must get use to working in heavy rain, freezing or high heat temperatures, be willing to wade in the wet freezing grass, or walk in the deep ploughed soil soaked with water. Only with this type of extensive training can the dog handler rely on the fact that the dog will be able to exhibit excellent performance even in very adverse conditions. These types of conditions can certainly happen during the actual test, competition and practice. For this reason tracking work is most suited to people with a very firm commitment to achieving the required objectives, despite the pitfalls and difficulties (bad weather, lack of time, failures during training etc.).

In no other type of dog training is your training endurance and persistence tested to the extent it is in scent/tracking work. If you want to achieve success quickly, then tracking is not for you. It is a fact that for a dog to consistently exhibit a top performance no matter how promising his tracking ability he will need much more time and work than the obedience dog or the dog trained for protection. Perfect training of a good tracker does not take only a few weeks, but it takes years. All working dogs are known to achieve their best performance only when they reach the age of around five years. Trackers are able to achieve their highest performance level even later. Peace, balance, experience and close relationship with the dog handler are vital during tracking. And these characteristics only come with age, or should we say with the old age. Both the dog and the dog handler must be so to speak “at home” on the tracks.

The actual training:
The Latin proverb “Festina lente” (hurry slowly) applies doubly for the training of dogs for scent work. We should observe the rule that we should always start with the simplest things and then continue with the more complex things.
At the beginners level of training it’s necessary to provide the dog with a simple terrain without any surrounding interferences which might distract the dog. You should start with your own, very short, fresh and straight tracks and then gradually increase the level of difficulty only very slowly. When the dog is perfectly able to follow these simple steps and fully concentrates on the work with his nose, following the trail with great precision, only then do you make the task more difficult with one retraction or to extend the age of the track by a few minutes. The level of difficulty should be increased gradually! Do not be affected by your dog’s enthusiasm for tracking. You should only add other more complicated tasks only when you are convinced that the dog is able to complete the prescribed tasks with enthusiasm and without major errors. Make sure the dog understands your enthusiasm for the work well done as his reward.

You must never give the dog two new difficult tasks at the same time. Meaning you must not simultaneously give the dog a longer trail, more retractions, objects, sharp angles and similar situations.
You should always start with your own footprints and only once a training level of the dog being perfectly able to follow even your more complicated footsteps is achieved, should you continue on with the footprints made by other people.

It is very important that you identify the time intervals when the dog really looks forward to tracking or when he does it almost out of obligation. For some dogs we can prepare the trail even four times a week, while with other dogs it would be ideal if we give them a 10 day break. Of course that all depends on the individual dog and there is no set template to follow. What suits one dog may not satisfy another dogs needs.

The most important thing during tracking training is motivation. You must motivate the dog constantly! You must reward the dog with each track, whether it is easy or difficult. Only by doing this ensures that the dog will be truly interested in tracking. It is important that you know your dog’s real motivation, knowing what is his greatest reward is crucially to success. It is ideal to have several types of rewards on hand which you can constantly alternate, so the dog does not get bored with them.

Basically the most important task the dog handler faces during training is the perfect orientation in the terrain and his ability to perfectly memorize the trail he has prepared. This is where the handlers (and not only the beginners) make the greatest mistakes. If the dog handler does not precisely remember which way he went when he was preparing the trails, he will never be able to correct his dog when the dog makes mistakes. The dog must sense from your behavior and guidance that you know absolutely exactly which way the trail goes and that you are always able to correct even minor inaccuracies. As soon as the dog can tell from your behavior that you are not sure how to follow the trail, it will provide the dog with the fastest way to learn how to “cheat”. It happens very often that many dog handlers and that includes not only the beginners, are not able to precisely find the trail they have prepared themselves a moment ago. This being a necessity and without it there is no possibility of successfully training a tracking dog. Remembering the trail even when tracking lasts several hours and has many retractions and objects is an absolute must. It’s a good idea to layout the terrain already before you prepare the actual trail and that you find some orientation points around which the individual sections of the trail will pass. But under no circumstances should you mark the retractions or objects and you should not place them at a highly visible orientation points such as columns with electric power lines, highly visible bunches of grass or tall trees etc.. The dog will quickly understand the relationship of these orientation points with the trail and will automatically expect and search for them in these places.

When you have spent a certain amount of time with the actual training and you are sure that the dog is quite able to follow the trail, it’s a good time to try and start tracking in the company of other people and other dogs. At this stage in training you usually will observe a great change in the way your dog behaves. This is because the dog’s psyche, which has a huge impact on his performance, will show more intensely. Some minor errors from the dog are also the result of the lack of concentration and this can also result in complete failure on the trail.  Lack in concentration can also be due to various altered training conditions like the presence of unfamiliar people or other dogs, dogs barking, strange noises. There can be a number of other factors that can influence a dog’s ability to fully concentrate on his work.  Lack of concentration is usually a perfectly natural reaction, however many dog handlers do not fully understand or predict this problem. It often will surface when the dog participates in a test or competition and for a dog which has not been psychologically properly trained the result can often be a total fiasco. That’s why it’s very important during training to get your dog used to unknown environments and to participate with other dogs and handlers. Training can involve lengthy car trips and long waits before the preparation of the actual trail. You basically want to simulate the “stressful” atmosphere which is present during and before the tests and competition events. Thus you will learn how to observe the situations that may disturb your dog while at tracking events and try to stimulate a similar scenario during training sessions to best equip your dog for those kinds of situations. It will also prepare and contribute towards your dog’ achieving  his best possible psychological well-being.

Tracking and Ridgeback:
For the Ridgeback, scent work training is one of the most natural activities they can be involved with and thanks to his good nose along with the right guidance the dog can achieve great results. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were originally a breed used mainly for hunting and therefore it has an excellent sense of smell. Tracking is literally a vital activity for every dog and even though the dogs have been domesticated for many generations, tracking and hunting instinct has been strongly preserved in every individual. Being a natural activity for the breed, i.e. tracking can be developed,  and is one of the things that can contribute to the meaningful use of leisure time. Tracking is basically expanding on the hunting talents of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, it is something that was inherited and is very natural. Nowadays we can see that it is in particular the hunting breeds that can and are able to compete with the traditional service breeds at scent work events.  Police Forces have now started to use and include hunting breeds amongst the service dogs mainly due to their natural talents.

Our training:
I personally focus my training for tracking sports in line with the National Examination and International IPO training regulations.
We train our dogs several times a week. Training sessions are usually divided into individual days according to various disciplines and the amount of training is determined according to the dogs’ performance and responses. Regular workouts are important if we want to set specific objectives (tests and competitions) and specific time periods (month, year) in which we want to achieve these goals. At the same time it is very important that we find the optimal ratio between trainings, so that we could achieve good results and improvements, but at the same time we are mindful and careful that we don’t “overwork” the dog as we don’t want to destroy any of the dog’s enthusiasm and interest in his work. Sometimes that is an extremely difficult task to get correct and the predictions can significantly affect the dog’s performance. It is important that we perfectly know our dog’s nature and individuality which enables us to interpret the dog’s performance and reactions. It always takes a bit of psychology.

In our case it seems to be optimal to train Rebel (INT CH Shelridge Aussie Rebel) in the scent work two to three times a week, we also perform obedience training once to three times a week. Obedience training with tracking is very important because we have found in our experience that if we improve the dog’s obedience, we will also improve the dog’s tracking results.

Rebel is living proof that even Rhodesian Ridgebacks can be extremely affective high-quality working dogs. During a relatively short period of training time “Rebel” has passed 10 performance tests, including almost all the most demanding tracking specials. Rebel is the only Ridgeback in the Czech Republic who has undergone special tracking tests FPr 3, ZPS1, FH1 and even FH2. Being a great achievement not only for “Rebel”, but predominantly also as a presentation of the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed as a worthy competitor at top level tracking events. Because no one had seen Ridgebacks competing at such a high standard before, “Rebel” generally attracts attention and admirers at these events.
“Rebel” is currently undergoing continuous training, in preparation for the last and most difficult international IPO-FH tracking competition, this title being the only one that is not in his collection. This test is really complicated, it lasts two days and therefore it is very difficult to pass. But because Rebel is still very young for tracking, I trust that his future is open in front of him. If he is going to stay fit in the coming seasons, we would like to get lucky in the qualifying races for the Czech Republic tracking dog championships. The mere participation or achievement of decent points would be a huge success both for Rebel, as well as for the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed.

Author: Kateřina Brychtová (2011)
Photo by Kateřina Brychtová 


Translation by Petra Krejčová and Dawn Redman


The article was used in “The European ridgeback magazine” – Winter issue 2011.